Lisa Bubert

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“I wake up very early,” says the unnamed protagonist of Nora Ericson and Elly MacKay’s picture book. Too early, the child’s father repeatedly echoes as he rouses himself from bed to make the coffee, wake the dogs but not the baby, and sit outside to watch the sun rise with his little morning companion. 

Ericson’s story is poetic and sweet, one that every adult with a tiny early riser of their own will surely recognize. She pays particular attention to sounds. Daddy goes “shuffle shuffle down the stairs,” the dogs “snuffle snuffle, s-t-r-e-e-e-t-c-h-h-h,” and then “burble burble goes the coffeepot.” Her words compel readers to speak them quietly: “Now the wind is waking. Tickle tickle on my cheeks, rustle rustle through the leaves.” The book’s soundscape gently awakens the mind and makes for an engaging, comforting read.

The book’s warm lyricism becomes truly beautiful when paired with MacKay’s illustrations, which perfectly capture the experience of a sleepy morning routine. MacKay washes every spread in hushed blues, from the deep navy of a bedroom shadow, to the blue-gray steam rising from Daddy’s coffee cup to fog up his glasses, to the nearly white-blue light of daybreak. The book is packed with noteworthy images, such as when the small child, lovey in tow, stands silhouetted in the doorway of Mama and Daddy’s bedroom. In the darkness before dawn, stars twinkle over the quiet front porch. The moon glows above as the family watches from below. “Hello, Moon,” the child says. “You’re lucky, you get to stay up all night.” 

Too Early is an ideal book for adults and children to enjoy together, especially on one of those snoozy mornings when no one feels quite ready to face the world just yet. Go ahead, it says. Snuggle up and enjoy a little lie-in, with coffee for the grown-up, warm milk for the little one and a glorious sunrise to start the day. 

Too Early is the perfect picture book to snuggle up with on a sleepy morning when neither adults nor little ones feel ready for the day to begin just yet.
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“Grandma’s been staying with us since she got sick,” reads the opening line of The Bird Feeder, which gently ushers readers into a difficult, necessary story. “That means now I can visit with her anytime I want,” reads the next line, letting the reader know that, while this story might be sad, there are also lovely moments ahead—promise. 

The narrator loves their grandmother, so the new arrangement is a welcome change. Together, they watch the bird feeder outside her window and create drawings of the birds they see. They especially admire the cardinals, which are Grandma’s favorite. Then Grandma moves to a new home. “Do you remember when I told you about the hospice?” asks the child’s mother, giving readers the opportunity to learn as well. “You told me it’s where Grandma will go when she needs to be more comfortable,” the narrator answers.

The child brings the bird feeder to the hospice so that Grandma can watch the birds through her new window. They continue to watch birds and draw, but they also enjoy bowls of purple Jell-O and visits from a therapy dog, and a pair of cardinals build a nest in the tree near the feeder. The days pass quietly and eventually, Grandma dies. “I’m glad Grandma saw the baby birds,” the narrator says. “I’m sad she won’t see them leave their nest.”

Few books handle death and dying as gracefully as The Bird Feeder. Author Andrew Larsen and illustrator Dorothy Leung don’t shy away from the realities of a hospice facility, including a nurse with gloves and a stethoscope, and a hospital bed with guardrails that nonetheless looks comfortable and homey. “I thought [the hospice] would be scary. But it’s not,” the narrator reveals. “It smells like pancakes.” Particularly poignant is the spread where the narrator and their mother say goodbye to Grandma as she sleeps, her lips turned down and eyes closed. The narrator sees three baby birds in the nest outside and squeezes their grandmother’s hand three times. 

Being present with someone who is dying can be one of life’s most remarkable experiences, and The Bird Feeder avoids portraying death as something that happens invisibly or behind closed doors. Larsen and Leung depict a difficult subject with dignity, leaving readers with a reminder that we can continue to remember and honor our loved ones, even after they are no longer with us. 

Few books handle death and dying as gracefully as The Bird Feeder, a difficult, necessary story that contains many moments of loveliness and poignancy.
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Lupe Lopez: Rock Star Rules

Lupe Lopez is ready to rock and roll her way into kindergarten. Fresh from a summer of drumming and perfecting her hip new look, she knows all rock stars make their own rules. Lupe is committed to never letting anyone tell her what to do, being as loud as possible and making “fans, not friends.” Unsurprisingly, this works great for Lupe—but not so well for Ms. Quintanilla, Lupe’s new teacher. 

Little by little, Lupe learns that even rock stars have to adhere to the rules (sometimes). Drumming belongs more on a stage than in the classroom, and friends are much better than fans—especially when they start a band together! Best of all, Lupe finds a way to remain the one-of-a-kind, “Texas-size” kindergarten rock star she is. 

Lupe Lopez: Rock Star Rules is a fun, fresh addition to the back-to-school picture book canon. It’s perfect for young readers who march to the beat of their own drums but may benefit from a gentle reminder to respect the needs of others around them. 

Lupe is the brainchild of a picture book dream team: co-writers e.E Charlton-Trujillo and Pat Zietlow Miller (Be Kind), and illustrator Joe Cepeda. Stonewall Award-winning Charlton-Trujillo’s influence as a South Texas native is clear in the familiar and joyful portrait of Lupe’s predominantly Latinx Hector P. Garcia Elementary school, complete with the requisite map of Texas on the classroom wall and bilingual labeling of classroom objects. (Don’t miss the nod to legendary Tejano musician Selena in Ms. Quintanilla’s name.) 

Zietlow Miller’s signature voice contributes to the story’s rhythm and narrative structure, both of which make Lupe Lopez: Rock Star Rules an excellent read-aloud. Children will love drumming along with Lupe when she shouts “¡Ran! ¡Rataplán! Boom-tica-bam! ¡Pit-a-pat. Rat-a-tat. Wham-wham-wham! ¡Soy famosa!” 

Pura Belpré Honor recipient Cepeda’s crisp, classical illustration style is perfect for a story with this much heart. He spares no detail in bringing Lupe to life on the page, right down to the pigtails in her hair and the pencils she uses for her drumsticks. 

Together, Charlton-Trujillo, Zietlow Miller and Cepeda have created an unforgettable heroine who will leap off the page and right onto your bookshelf. Fans of feisty heroines such as Russell and Lillian Hoban’s Frances, Ian Falconer’s Olivia and Monica Brown and Sara Palacios’ Marisol McDonald will be clamoring to join Lupe’s band.

One Boy Watching

As many children in rural areas know, living in the country often means being the first to board the school bus in the morning and the last to get dropped off at the end of the day. It means mornings of quiet reflection as the world wakes up and evenings spent on winding gravel roads toward home. 

One Boy Watching is a nearly wordless picture book that opens as the sun is just barely beginning to rise, when a school bus arrives at a boy’s rural home. Some introductory descriptions follow the unnamed protagonist as he steps onto the bus (“Twenty-eight empty seats. . . . One bus at sunrise under an infinite sky.”), but the scene’s beauty can be found in the serene spaces between those phrases. The reader is invited to sit peacefully, to breathe deeply, to soak in the prismatic watercolor and colored pencil sunrise skies. 

Author-illustrator Grant Snider, the creator of the popular webcomic “Incidental Comics,” reprises the same hushed feeling found in his earlier picture books, including What Color Is Night and What Sound Is Morning. His artistry seems simple: It’s light on distinct detail and heavy on bold lines, capturing the shapes of objects just barely visible in the early dawn, such as bulbous trees or the peak of a roof. Later spreads contain sights that will be familiar to rural school bus riders: pastures of hay bales, the glow of headlights in the early dawn, fields of rusted cars, water towers, the silhouettes of distant barns and feed silos. 

The real wow factor, however, is in the quietly powerful way that Snider uses color. By blending colors, lines and shapes into one another, Snider mimics the blur of what children see from a bus window on the way to school. As the journey continues and more children board the bus, the reader can almost hear the sound of their laughter, the rumble of the bus’s engine and the wail of a train horn at the railroad crossing—all with hardly any words on the page. 

Reserved, thoughtful readers who prefer to spend time lingering over illustrations or making up their own stories about the stories they read will especially appreciate One Boy Watching. It vividly conveys the experiences of those first-to-get-on, last-to-get-off students who witness a sunrise every morning and a sunset every evening as they mark the beginning and end of each school day.

The first day of school is a momentous occasion for many children. These picture books capture the experience with sparkle and style.

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